War on Drugs

Pregnancy Crimes

Illegal birth defects


Starting in July, new mothers in Tennessee may be held criminally responsible for a baby's birth defects if the problems arise from drug use during pregnancy. Specifically, the law says that a woman "may be prosecuted for assault for the illegal use of a narcotic drug while pregnant, if her child is born addicted to or harmed by the narcotic drug." Penalties include up to 15 years in prison.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam (R) approved the law in April, calling it a "tool to address illicit drug use among pregnant women through treatment programs." The law does allow mothers to avoid criminal charges by signing up for and sticking with a state-run drug treatment program. But opponents-among them the American Medical Association, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)-say the law will actually deter pregnant women from seeking addiction help, and perhaps prenatal medical care altogether, out of fear of prosecution.

"This deeply misguided law will force those women who need health care the most into the shadows," says ACLU Staff Attorney Alexa Kolbi-Molinas. "Pregnant women with addictions need better access to health care, not jail time."

Critics also complain that the measure encourages women to seek abortions, asks doctors and medical staff to act as law enforcement, and invites women who miscarry to be treated like criminal suspects. 

Editor's note: On July 8, Mallory Loyola was the first mother charged under the new law.